Saturday, December 30, 2006

Can Gunfire Really be 'Contagious'?

Nov. 29, 2006:
Five NYPD officers fired 50 shots at an unarmed man. Critics called it murder. But some experts say 'contagious shooting' is actually to blame.

Five New York City police officers went to work last Friday having never fired their 16-shot semiautomatic pistols on patrol. But by early Saturday morning, they'd all pulled the trigger for the first time—shooting a total of 50 rounds at Sean Bell, an unarmed 23-year-old who allegedly hit an undercover officer and an unmarked police van with his car after leaving a Queens strip club. The barrage killed Bell and renewed a debate about whether police are more likely to use excessive force against unarmed—and predominantly black—men. (For many, Bell's death brought back memories of the infamous 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who died in a flurry of 41 bullets after reaching for a wallet that police thought was a gun.) City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called the Bell incident "deeply disturbing," and the Rev. Al Sharpton said that it "amount[ed] to a firing squad." But defenders of law enforcement claim a combination of inexperience, fear, confusion and lack of training can cause what's known in police parlance as "contagious shooting"—gunfire that spreads, in the heat of the moment, from officer to officer. NEWSWEEK's Andrew Romano talked to former police officer Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City, about whether contagious shooting could explain last week's tragedy. Excerpts...